Vienna's Last Women-Only Feminist Space Threatened with Cancellation
But there's a lot you can do to help.
Sign a petition to keep the Women's Center open here!
Ten years ago, I was part of a community in my hometown, loosely connected around liking alternative music. Important portion of this group’s lifestyle was going to concerts in Vienna.
One hour away from Bratislava, the Austrian capital was always cooler than ours. It hosted bigger musical names, it showed more art, it had more “alternative culture,” more money, more everything.
Who would share rides to the Arena with whom, or take the train together to WUK, both frequent venues for alternative music, became an exercise in “cool signaling.” Despite their importance to my group status, I had no clue of these Viennese ex-factories-turned-cultural-spots’ history.
At last, years after I had left the alternative music community, I educated myself. As usually, I’ve got radical feminists to thank. Ten years ago, I had no idea there was a Women’s Tower at the ex locomotive factory that hosted WUK – the alternative cultural center my peers loved so much.
Alas, when I first learned about Frauenzentrum (FZ -Women’s center), I also found out it was under the threat of being shut down.
Established in the early 1980s, Vienna’s Women’s center (FZ) was a response to misogyny in the left and autonomous movement. Just as the USA, Austria went through a „flower revolution“ and had a leftist student movement of its own in the late 1960s.
In the 70s and 80s, young autonomous leftists of both sexes occupied unused buildings destined for demolition and used them as squats, as well as cultural and political spaces.
Unsurprisingly, misogyny soon drove many women away. Even compared to today’s leftists’ shenanigans, the men of the Austrian autonomous movement really didn’t hold back. For instance, in 1968, artist Günter Brus of the Vienna Actionists sang the national anthem in a university lecture hall while he masturbated and smeared himself with feces.
If this was an act the movement men considered appropriate to perform in public, one can imagine what happened behind closed doors. Austrian women themselves mention how “rape, sexist bullying, abuse and disregard for women” along with “the search for a radical feminist everyday practice” inspired them to set up their own spaces.
The first autonomous Women's center, as an independent feminist women's space in Vienna, was established in the premises of the AUF (Aktion Unabhängiger Frauen/Action of Independent Women) at Tendlergasse 6. It was set up in April 1974 and existed there until 1978.
Another autonomous space for women was fought for during the "Arena occupation" in 1976 Vienna. In the former slaughterhouse, women established a „Women‘s House“ and a „children's house,“ in which they lived and organized together while men were excluded.
Today’s Frauenzentrum, the last standing women-only occupied space in Vienna, was founded in 1981. In 1978, female students and graduates of the University of Applied Arts organized against male dominance at the university. After a three-year search for their own space, the association decided in favor of occupying part of the vacant TGM (Technical Trade Museum), an ex-locomotive factory on Waehringer Strasse.
At that time, negotiations about this building were taking place between a mixed-sex association within the autonomous movement, WUK (Werkstätten- und Kulturhaus) and the City of Vienna. The women wanted a part of the building for a Women’s center, with their own staircase and a street-side entrance—they knew that moving into a common area with a male-dominated project would bring problems.
According to Lisa from FZ, these women were the first people to occupy the ex locomotive factory. In an exclusive interview for 4W, she stresses they were never part of the mixed-sex WUK. Laughing, she explains “we always caused them a lot of trouble.”
“FZ’s definition of women as adult human females hasn’t made them popular in the, largely ‘queer-feminist,’ environment.”
The first activity that brought the women of FZ together was renovating the dilapidated building. One group focused on the ground floor: they joined forces to create a bar, as well as a party and meeting spot.
The second renovation project centered around the staircase and the second floor. While the renovation was ongoing, the rooms of the “Women’s Tower” were used for various feminist activities.
According to Lisa and Irene, there were self-defense classes, a feminist health group; a room for lesbians, migrant women, female artists, and women opposed to genetic and reproductive technologies; anti-psychiatry groups, anti war groups, international feminist solidarity activities and networking, a group to support incarcerated women; women’s carpentry and handicraft workshop, feminist magazine publishers’ and a feminist girls’ school.
Lisa explained to 4W that although in Austria it is compulsory for a child to get primary education, the school she attends doesn’t have to be state-approved. Thus, FZ was able to host a feminist girls’ school, quaintly named after Virginia Woolf. As Irene stated for 4W, the pupils learned the basics, such as math, reading and writing in a way of feminist basics they also had self-defense classes. Girls’ friendship and self-defense were basic principles. After 10 years of existence, according to Lisa, the school was closed, partially with the new right-wing government to blame.
How is the FZ doing now? As Lisa told us in August 2021, there are around 50 women regularly using the Women’s center. The feminist self-defense classes are ongoing, there are spaces for female migrant artists and antifascists in the Women’s Tower, as well as language courses where migrants can learn German. This self-managed women‘s space also hosts organizers of an Austrian-wide March 8 Women‘s Strike, the „Lesbians against the Right Wing,“ activists against the „Prolife Movement“ and against Racism and are members of Solidarity Networking for the International Women‘s Movement, for example the Kurdish Women‘s Movement and the Zapatistas.
“All women at the center are volunteers and the services they provide are free of charge.”
At the FZ, women, lesbians, female migrants and girls can also set up any other groups if they feel like it.
As Lisa explained to 4W.pub, FZ is still “occupying” the building. All women at the center are volunteers and the services they provide are free of charge. Government or municipal money is off the table: as the women have explained, such funds always come with strings attached.
The other occupant of the ex-locomotive factory, WUK, presents a different story. The Cultural center that, reportedly, hosts 150 different “grassroots” groups, states on its own website that WUK receives funds from the city of Vienna, Austrian state, and the European Union.
Despite this, until recently, WUK occupied the building on Waehringer Strasse having no contract with the city. The same applied to FZ.
However, times have changed and the formerly uncool neighborhood has turned into a hip one. Close to the city center, Waehringer Strasse property is lucrative. No wonder Vienna wanted the occupants to either pay the rent or involve clear out the space for projects that would bring money.
“Austrian liberal feminists and ‘queers’ are now more likely to say the FZ “should be burned down” than lobby Vienna to treat the Women’s center fairly.”
In 2018 the WUK Board wanted to sign a contract with the City to guarantee the ongoing work and the renovation of the building as well. FZ was against signing a contract but they were in favor of renovations, including the building of an accessible entrance.
However, according to Lisa, during the pandemic, WUK finally signed the contract for the whole building without the consent of FZ.
By doing so, they gave thumbs up to renovations that threaten to destroy the FZ. To top it off, the rental contract makes FZ a part of the WUK. FZ calls this behavior „forced marriage“ and refuses the entire contract.
This agreement also includes a plan to build a public staircase inside the FZ, which would not only destroy the Women’s center, but contradicts the conservation of the heritage-protected building.
Despite these injustices, the non-radical part of the Viennese feminist scene is not up in arms. FZ’s definition of women as adult human females hasn’t made them popular in the, largely “queer-feminist,” environment.
According to Lisa, the “transgender issue” became most contentious in 2016/2017. Some collectives left the center, the member base fell and threats and abuse abounded.
She adds that in the times of „neoliberal“ feminism, “there is less passion and desire for the power of a radical liberation movement.”
Austrian liberal feminists and “queers” are now more likely to say the FZ “should be burned down” than lobby Vienna to treat the Women’s center fairly.
However, according to Lisa, “other feminist groups, women‘s projects leftists are showing remarkable solidarity.”
If you’d like to join them, FZ, the last of the two female-only women’s centers in Austria, is asking the international community for help! You can do that by signing this petition: https://www.mein.aufstehn.at/petitions/fz-bleibt
Other way to help is to send protest e-mails to the persons in charge listed below. Don‘t forget to send a copy to [email protected]! You may use the proposal below or write an e-mail in your own words in solidarity with the women‘s center Vienna (Frauenzentrum Wien) and autonomous women-only spaces in general.
The persons in charge:
Kathrin Gáal (Deputy Mayor and City Councillor for Housing, Building and Women)
Peter Kovacs (Municipal Department 34, Building Management, Project Manager)
Jürgen Polansky (MA 34, Building Management, Project Manager)
Marion Gebhart (MA 57, Women‘s Services, Head of Department)
Michael Ludwig (Mayor of Vienna)
“I am outraged to hear that the City of Vienna is planning to destroy a more than 40 year old autonomous, feminist WomenLesbianGirlsFemaleMigrant centre! In times of anti-feminist backlash, a political and autonomously organized center for women (only!) is essential and indispensable!
In solidarity with the women‘s centre Vienna (Frauenzentrum Wien), I also demand that the City of Vienna recognizes the FZ as an independent and autonomous owner.
I request that the FZ furthermore is a women only space and that it is not going to be a public building. For every football pitch an autonomous women‘s/lesbian centre! Less commercial and more self-organized free spaces! The city belongs to all of us!”
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